Sunday, May 13, 2007

Specialist subject

A new study sheds interesting light on the Stamford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which a group of 'normal' young men were arbitrarily designated to be either 'guards' or 'prisoners' in a fictitious prison setting. In the original experiment, the guards quickly began to brutalise the prisoners in order to maintain discipline. In adition, the prisoners quickly became passive, after initial rebellion.

This new study examines who volunteers to be a subject in this type of experiment. Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland from Western Kentucky University circulated the original advert from the SPE (the original description is available as a PDF here). They also circulated an advert that was identical except that it made no mention of the prison setting. They found that people volunteering for the experiment that explicitly mentioned the prison setting "scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism" than those volunteering for the other study. The authors suggest that this should lead to a rethinking of the 'generality' of the lessons from the SPE.

This raises two questions for me. Firstly, to what extent were those who volunteered for Carnahan and McFarland's study aware of the SPE? Might prior knowledge of the violence that ensued deter less those with less 'abuse related dispositions'? Secondly, if the people in the study don't know, a priori whether they will be guards or prisoners, would the same characteristics that lead to the propensity for abuse also lead to the high levels of complicity and 'victimhood' exhibited by the prisoners in the original experiment? Any ideas, psych geeks?


Martin Sewell said...

It is important to note that the Stanford prison experiment was designed to cause the sort of behaviour that was observed. ‘Guards also wore special sun-glasses, an idea I borrowed from the movie "Cool Hand Luke."’ The experiment showed the obvious and expected effects of demand characteristics.

fari said...

It is likely the association with prison abuse that is quite widespread. I worked in a prison, the girls were always riling against the guards, as naturally they took out their frustrations on them and the guards likewise learnt to feel that all/most
prisoners were hopeless scum.

Thomas J. Carnahan, Ph.D. said...

Hi, Thomas J. Carnahan Ph.D. here. To answer your first question, we did a post study questionnaire asking how many of our participants knew of the original SPE prior to volunteering, and most had not. They were just looking for a good paying summer job that interested them. Those who did know of the SPE again did not know if they would be assigned as a guard or prisoner and felt that their knowledge of the original SPE did not influence their decision to volunteer.

To answer your second question, we will never know. That was not the point of this study, nor can any study be performed (in the United States) because of the ethical questions it would raise.

If you have any further questions or comments, I can be reached at

Thomas J. Carnahan, Ph.D.

Auntie Em said...

Thanks for the reply Thomas! Good of you to drop by.

Re: the 2nd question - do you know if any studies have been done on the character traits of long term victims of domestic violence or bullying for example that make them more or less able to resist the aggression? I know that there have been several studies in to the traits that lead to high propensity for bullying (such as the link with a threatened sense of elevated self esteem.

Thanks again for your input.

Post a Comment